Dara Higgins on his time as an alfresco purveyor of live audio recordings of questionable quality and legality
The first time I was arrested was invigorating, thrilling, a rite of passage. All the lads on the bridge went through it, it was a necessary evil, a badge of comradeship. Us versus them. You entered the cell a boy, you exited a man. This of course wasn’t true. I entered 14 years old, and exited 14 years old but with a lot of explaining to do and many months of being grounded to look forward to. Totally worth it.
I didn’t need to get collared, but in my naïve (and still persisting) belief that experience equalled knowledge, I took the bullet. Garda “raided” the Bridge, as if it were some dingy speakeasy, with the impish tactic of approaching from both ends simultaneously and removing their caps so they couldn’t be easily seen. Lads scarpered. Cases of precious C60s and C90 were lost to the evidence room of time. Unless some brave warrior stepped forward and took the fall. Getting arrested with your box meant it was your property and you could get it back. You might have 30 tapes in a case. 3 or 4 pounds a pop? What’s a brush with the law against that kind of cheddar? Also, being a minor, I wouldn’t get a permanent record. Do you need any more incentive?
So my first brush with the law involved me asking, everso politely, to be arrested. The Garda, a young fella, a dub, was surprised, to say the least. Perhaps a bit dismayed, after all, I was being pretty fucking stupid. He shrugged and we walked towards Pearse St together, affably, like brothers. One in a scruffy Megadeth tshirt, one a willing tool of an oppressive state. Making idle conversation he asked if I had any Fleetwood Mac in the box. I did not. I wondered if I had, could we have negotiated a release. You take this muddy recording of Rhiannon and I take my leave.
On arrest you sign in, understand your charges and get given a sheet that tells you your rights, among which is the right to a cup of tea. Every time I got collared, I demanded my tea. Every time they’d laugh sardonically. What else are you fucking doing in here lads? You sure as fuck aren’t catching any real criminals. Where’s my tea?
Getting lifted meant I could leave with the box. The tapes were the thing. They were worth more than freedom. Problem was, being a minor, I needed signing out, so an acceptable adult needed to be summoned. Funny thing, my parents were on holidays. Some distant Aunt, mortified, god love her, had to pick me up. But the plus side of that meant she couldn’t wait to get rid of me, wanting to avoid any difficult conversations about the difference between wrong and right and all that parental shit.
I hopped out on Abbey St, and into the Abbey Mall, which at that time served as a kind of base. The guy who ran the operation, our Fagin if you will, could be found here, hanging out in Abbey disks, or failing that, in one of the pubs adjacent to the Bridge. Walking back in, a bona fide criminal with a box of contraband under my arm, made me a brief hero and earned me a fiver. Ay, you broke your cherry, they didn’t say. I didn’t rat on my mates, I said nothing to no one. I took it like a man.
Getting collared by John Law was very much part of the game when you were selling tapes on O’Connell Bridge. To trade on the Bridge you needed a licence. Some of the guys did, the ones with a patch, selling hats, shitty lead jewellery on black laces, skulls and iron crosses and, in an ironic twist, knock off tshirts. Greasy, poorly printed G n’ R and Motorhead. Entirely illegal, but hey. Licence.
Tape sellers did not have a licence. Because bootlegging gigs was also illegal. Somehow I’d finagled my way into be look out, perched on the balustrade, watching for the tell-tale bobble of the copper’s hat. I was not suited for the job. It required a couple of key skills I lacked. Attention span, was one, eyesight was another. To say I was short-sighted undersells my myopia. In fact that’s not entirely fair. I’m only short sighted in one eye. Long sighted in the other. Whichever way you shake it, I was practically blind, and my glasses were not cool. I looked like Conservative sex-pest MP with them on. So on more than one occasion we split like startled ibex when I saw a postman making his merry way across the bridge. Those ones were fire-drills. You have to do them every now and then, to prove that you’re ready. Or so I’d say to myself while I swore blind that there was deffo, deffo, a pig on the move there.
Occasionally it wasn’t a friendly, benign postman. At times it was the actual cops. And sometimes they meant business, for whatever reason. One assumes they were bored or needed to make arrests or were desperate for the Cure in the RDS from last week and didn’t actually have four pounds on them until pay day. Once, a grand soft day, thank god, four guards implemented the dreaded pincer move. I was selling that day, stood in the middle of five people, all with a case of tapes open before them, a flutter of Spanish students buzzing around, when the word went up. Cops, coming from the south. Leg it. But then, as they ran north, it transpired cops were also coming from the north. There was no escape.
Except to go east. That is, right into the road, to knock on the door of a bus, the 20b as I recall, which was stopped there in the unmoving treacle of Dublin’s traffic, which was a stationary thing from about 2.30pm to 7 every day. The bus driver opened the doors with a sigh and I hopped. Younger reader, bus drivers used to do this all the time. They’d let you off whereever, let you on wherever. They didn’t care. There were rules, but they were vague. The bus was bandit country. We were supposed to leave from the centre doors, but that never took and no driver worth his salt was going to enforce that particular law. Who wanted to be that prick? “I won’t let you off, egress from the middle doors. Front doors are for entering only.” No one, that’s who.
“25p,” I said to the driver, making a show of looking for the change in my pockets and knowing I had, at best, about 17p. I hoped that the traffic would move so I could express dismay at my own penury, make some self-abasing joke and get off at the next stop. No harm done. Outside on the pavement it was kicking off. A guard had one seller, let’s call him Joe, in a headlock, as Joe kicked out at another guard. Unnecessary force on all sides. It’s a few tapes, lads, chill. At worst you’ll be denied a cup of tea. Unless that foot connects with the copper’s jaw. Then they’ll take a hungry glee in beating you around the head with the Yellow Pages for half an hour. The guards looked raw, young, vicious, like a pack of nascent hunters thrilling over their first kill. They looked like they were doing this for the pure bloody thrill of it. The urgent snap of a few broken bones would be mere music to them.
The driver lifted an eyebrow laconically. “Are you part of that?” he asked, referring to the violence happening just feet away, as if on television.
“No idea what you’re talking about.”
He looked at the tape-case I had held protectively to my breast as if all my earthly possessions were contained with in. We shared a look. We could hear the pained squeals of Joe, who was getting his arm pinned behind his back.
“Where are you headed?”
“Eh. Just down the road?”
The traffic moved, the bus crawled away from the epic tableau of justice been served on the long-haired skull of some young lad who felt his honour forbade him giving up a box of chrome tapes with shitty Hendrix demos on them without a show of utterly pointless machismo.
Smart takes the bus, mate.
The driver let me out at the next stop, and didn’t even charge me, his barely concealed amusement clearly payment enough. I spent an hour in Eason’s looking through the books and waiting for the heat to cool off. This was my Mexico. Then I headed back to base, back to the Abbey Mall, like some returning hero. Again. Lifted or not, all Fagin cared about was his box, but my fellow criminales wanted to know how I’d beat the bust, full of talk of how Joe was getting done for assault or was in a coma or something. I smiled enigmatically, and regaled all with my story. Public transport saved my life.
AAnother time a fellow hawker, an old hand at the game, was running from the polis. If they catch him, they arrest him, and the fines get to be expensive after a while. So he chucks the box, tosses it under a lorry idling by the kerb. The traffic along Batchelor’s Quay was stolid and unmoving, as per usual, so maybe he thought he’d come back and get it once he’d shown his pursuer that clearly, sans box, he was nothing more than a citizen walking along a pavement. The driver of said lorry had different ideas. He was from the North, thought that some rapscallion terrorist fuck had just chucked an IED under his cab. He jumped out and did the cop’s job for them. Held in a head lock by an angry Derryman, said trader was glad of the welcoming embrace of the Garda, once he’d stopped laughing.
These incidents were not a regular occurrence. The law had no real interest in casual trading. It was occasional harassment. Sometimes a guard would slip through the net and walk right up to us. He’d suggest we’d go home and pack up but he had no will for an afternoon of paperwork and a court appearance. Most of the time on the Bridge was spent waiting to hook a customer. Some days hours would pass, and no one would want anything. On Saturdays we’d watch, bored, as some disgruntled group marched down O’Connell Street. Students who wanted more baked bean per can, Anti Drugs activists demanding more help in pushing out the pushers, Socialist Workers complaining about, well, everything, and if there was no beef to aired on that day you’d have the Hari Krishnas, dancing and bongoing their way across the bridge, selling you the dream of slightly manic happiness in a tablecloth. I miss those guys.
Summer was best, the sun made people happier, looser with their coin, school was out and I could get into town on a Tuesday or whatever. Tourists were genuinely interested in the wares, to them it was a novelty. Locals were more guarded. They came for specific reasons, not for a browse. The week following a big gig you were guaranteed a few sales. Winter was as you’d imagine, on a bridge in a northern European city, the wind and rain making a nonsense of the endeavour. I made no money in winter.
Luckily for the lads they were all signing on as well, of course. After all, it’s the music industry. Me, I needed the corn. I had no alterative revenue streams. I needed to purchase cans of LCL Pils and boxes of Rothmans and vinyl from the Megastore or Abbey Disks. Once I kept sketch all week to get bus fare to Cork to see Prince in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. A six pack of Budweiser (ugh) rendered that experience some kind of fever dream. This tiny man having sex with a piano half a mile away while the crowd chanted “Ooh aah Paul McGrath.” Needless to say there was someone there with a Walkman and we were selling tapes of the gig the following week. The quality was shite.
The quality usually was, unfortunately. A hidden Walkman’s built in mic was not the apex of fidelity. But that was never the point. If you saw REM in the RDS all you wanted was a memento that maybe you’d listen to once, and the real gems were things like Joy Division’s RCA demos or the aforementioned Prince’s Black Album, stuff you couldn’t get anywhere else. Bands wouldn’t be happy if they heard themselves on hissy, muddled tape. Indeed, No Sweat, local hairspray act from back in the day, came along with their manager one day and demanded we stopped selling a recent Baggot Inn gig. The recording’s okay, I wanted to say. It’s the songs that suck. Ah, youth.
Fagin was fastidious about the quality of his tapes, however. They weren’t cheapo. They were TDKs and the like. The photocopy paper was a grade above bog roll. We strove for accurate set lists. Not getting all the songs would give you some indication of the quality within, when you couldn’t discern one muffled mush from another. Not all sellers had similar standards. I worked for one guy, a bassist in a popular metal band at the time, who was renowned for his poor quality tapes. Word had it he’d get so stoned he’d forget to put the actual music on his tapes and half the day would be spent batting away entreaties for refunds. Even at the bottom of the rung, you have to have standards. When a new type of bootlegger emerged, selling actual copied records, he was given short shrift and moved on. We kidded ourselves there was some dignity in providing this service.
The industry, such as it was, died in the nineties. There’s loads of reasons, maybe it ceased to be fashionable. You could get the tapes indoors now, in record shops on Wexford Street. There was no need to pay some lad to keep sketch, or another to chat up young ones and sell them The Smiths from the National Stadium in 1984. There were no cops to run from, no fines to pay. It made sense. For some guys selling, casual trading was their business. Some went legit, with a licence and a breadboard tacked with knockoff scarves and bandannas. Others had less luck. I met one, many years later, waiting outside the Morrison Hotel with a bag full of Manic Street Preachers cds, aiming to get the scrawl of James Dean Bradfield across them so he could sell the lot on Ebay. That was his latest venture in a life of scams.
Is there any need for a bootleg now? Some bands release a desk recording to the crowd right after the fact. Back in the day Metallica had a section where you could stand with your Walkman and record it, for your own edification, of course. And if you really want, there’s 70,000 videos on YouTube from some come cunt who’s standing in front of you for the entire show recording the experience on his smartphone. Because being in the moment is for pricks, right?
I learned all I know about retail from selling shitty tapes on a cold bridge. That is to say, not very much. Retail was never for me. I’m not good with people. When a young girl asked if we had Bros’s recent Dublin show, I laughed in her face. Admonished by a colleague for berating a customer, I still felt I was right. Like some kind of comedy record shop wanker. I disdain you for even buying this shit that I sell. I took that attitude into relationships too. You’re attracted to me? You must be stupid. Once when desperate for shekels I attempted to get a job in Tower Records citing my time as tape huckster as my “retail experience” in the “music industry”. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job, and they were right. So very right. I can’t begin to imagine how bad at it I would have been. And god forbid a postman would have come in to get the latest Elbow album. You wouldn’t see me for dust.